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Language and Identity

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Language and Identity

In communication, there are many ways that people can express elements of their identity. There are also many aspects to a person's life that define their identity. Language can both give someone identity and allows them to share the aspects of it, such as their age, gender or where they live. We will look at the relationship between language and identity, how this relates to sociolinguistic study, and some examples of identity in language use.

The Relationship Between Language and Identity

A person's identity can be influenced by different factors (parents, peers and region) at different ages. These factors can influence a person’s language use.

  • During childhood, a person’s language will mirror their parents’ as they are who they'll interact with the most.

  • When speakers reach secondary school, they may start to adopt their peers' language features due to socialising with more social groups.

  • A person’s regional identity will be shown through their use of a regional accent. This could change to take on features of different regions, for example, if someone moves to a different area for a significant length of time.

Now let's have a look at how identity more specifically relates to aspects of sociolinguistic study.

Language and Identity In Sociolinguistics

A person's language is influenced by their social groups, leading us to the field of sociolinguistics.

Sociolinguistics is the study of how social factors such as age and gender can affect language use. This takes into account how someone speaks and the judgements and perceptions associated with language features.

The social factors that can affect a person's language and identity include:

  • Region (location)

  • Gender

  • Age

  • Occupation

  • Class

  • Ethnicity

The use of different language features can imply a sense of belonging to different social groups. These group-specific features are used to portray a certain identity to the world. We call language use that shows belonging to a certain social groups sociolects.

Sociolect is a combination of the terms 'social' and 'dialect'. The term refers to language use that is specific to people belonging to the same social group and share the same social factors, such as class, age, or occupation.

For example, teenagers may use slang terms such as 'GOAT' (greatest of all time), 'lit' (amazing/brilliant), or 'V' (very) so that they can differentiate themselves from adults and portray their age as a focal point of their identity.

A speaker can also show individual identity by using their idiolect.

Idiolect refers to the specific way an individual speaks. Idiolects have language features from different social groups, creating a unique mix of features.

Language and Identity Examples

Let's look at some examples of how identity is shown in language relating to two of the main social factors: region and class.

Region

A real-life example of how region (geographical location) can impact language and be used as a marker for identity can be seen in music. Some singers will choose to perform in a standard British or American accent to appeal to a larger audience, even though that's not their original accent. However, some singers choose to retain their regional accents when singing. This allows them to show their region as part of their identity.

The Proclaimers (who sang 500 Miles) and Twin Atlantic (who sang Heart and soul) both sing with their Scottish accents, showing us that they value their home region as part of their identity and want to share it with their audience.

Singers like these go against the norm of singers opting to sing in a standardised accent. Think of Adele - she has a strong cockney accent when she's speaking but swaps to a standard American accent when she sings.

Class

As a general rule regarding class and language, we can state that people with a higher class are more likely to speak with Received Pronunciation (RP); this is because RP has historically been the accent used and taught in educational institutes.

An example of this can be seen in the speech of the Queen. She is of the upper class and always uses Received Pronunciation. By doing this, she is showing the upper-class aspect of her identity through her language.

Now that we understand the influence identity has on someone's language, we can look at how identity applies to sociolinguistic theories.

Identity and Sociolinguistic Theory

There are many theories which look at the link between language use and identity and if we went through all of them we'd be here all week! So, in this article, we'll go through four of the main social groups (region, gender, age, and class) and look at one theory for each.

We'll also look at two other theories that apply more to general language use than to particular social groups.

Region

Carmen Llamas

In 1968, Middlesbrough changed from being part of Yorkshire to being part of the Teesside County Borough. This meant that the Middlesbrough accent changed from having primarily Yorkshire accent and dialect features to then having features typical of the North East.

Linguist Carmen Llamas carried out a study in 2000 into the linguistic variation in Middlesbrough and found the following:

  • Older people used more Yorkshire accent features.

  • Younger people used more North-East features.

  • There is a strong hostility towards being labelled a 'geordie'.

  • The people of Middlesbrough wished to be identified as North-East or Middlesbrough through their accent.1

Language and identity Image of women talking about dialects StudySmarterPeople from different regions will speak in different accents, StudySmarter Original

Gender

George Keith and John Shuttleworth

In 1999, linguists Keith and Shuttleworth carried out a series of conversation analyses of men's and women's speech. Their findings concluded that there are typical speech characteristics for each gender, shown in the table below:

Women
Men
  • Talk too much
  • More polite
  • Hesitant
  • Complain or nag
  • Ask questions
  • Support each other
  • More cooperative
  • Swear more
  • Avoid emotions
  • Insult each other
  • Competitive in conversation
  • Dominate conversation
  • Speak with authority
  • Give more commands
  • Interrupt more
  • Have demeaning names for women
  • Talk about women and machines in the same way
  • Talk about sports

Keith and Shuttleworth's findings align with typical gender stereotypes. People may alter how they speak to avoid language that encourages stereotypical judgements based on gender.2

Age

Gary Ives

Linguist Gary Ives interviewed a group of teenagers in West Yorkshire to document the features of adolescent language use. He found recurring patterns in the speech of the teens.

These were:

  • Their speech is linked by an informal register.

  • The most common topic of conversation is relationships.

  • Taboo language is part of the teen vernacular.

  • Dialect is often used when speaking.

  • Slang is common.

  • Informal lexical choices are often linked by common themes or topics.3

Teenagers may use some or all of these features to place themselves in the group identity of ‘teenager.’ Teenagers who don’t want to be defined by the stereotype of ‘teenager’ will often choose not to use these features in their language.

Occupation

Michael Nelson

Linguist Michael Nelson carried out a study in 2000 into the concept of business lexis. He concluded that people at work use language in a semantic field of business, for example:

  • business

  • people

  • companies

  • institutions

  • money

  • time

  • technology

He also found that certain words or topics were not used, for example:

  • weekends

  • personal issues

  • family

  • society

  • house and home

  • hobbies

Nelson's theory can be linked to identity by looking at a person's workplace language.

When at work, speakers may:

  • Use Nelson’s business lexis to create a professional identity and keep their home identity private, or;

  • Deviate from Nelson’s business lexis and use more of their idiolect features to create a more personable and approachable identity.4

Now that we've looked at identity and sociolinguistic theories, let's have a look at a theory that shows how people change their language to show how they don't belong to certain social groups.

Michael Halliday's Anti-language

Anti-language is the language of an anti-society that exists as an alternative to 'normal' society.

Anti-language is linked to identity as it is used when a group of people seek a covert identity.

A covert identity is a secret identity. The word covert refers to something that is hidden.

After research into anti-languages and their uses, Halliday found that:

  • Anti-languages are generally shown through a specific lexicon.

  • They share the same grammar as the main society but have a different vocabulary.

  • Users of anti-languages can communicate meanings to each other that are inaccessible to a non-user.

  • Groups who use anti-language view it as fundamental to their identity.5

The best way to understand the concept of anti-languages is to look at a real-life example.

Polari

Polari is an example of an anti-language. Historically, it was used in the UK by gay men but has now mostly fallen out of use. The lexicon was derived from a variety of different sources including Cockney rhyming slang, backslang, Italian, USA airforce slang, and drug-user slang.

Backslang is a form of anti-language where words are said as if they're spelt backwards.

Examples of backslang are: "erif" (fire), "doog eno" (good one), and "delo" (old).

This anti-language allowed gay men to communicate without being overheard. This was important at the time as it allowed them to share an aspect of their identity (being gay) that was illegal at the time.

Some examples of Polari words are:

  • ajax (next to)
  • bevvy (drink)
  • bona (good)
  • naff (awful)
  • cod (awful)
  • dolly (pretty)
  • vada (to look)

Language and Identity - Key Takeaways

  • A person's identity can be represented through their language use.
  • A person's identity is often influenced by the social groups they're in.
  • Social factors that can contribute to someone's identity are region, gender, age, occupation, class and ethnicity.
  • Some key theorists in language and identity include M. Halliday, G. Ives, C. Llamas, and M. Nelson.
  • Anti-language is used by groups of people who want an alternative to 'normal' society and seek a covert identity.

References

  1. C. Llamas. Middlesbrough English: Convergent and divergent trends in s 'part of Britain with no identity. Leeds working papers in linguistics and phonetics. 2000
  2. G. Keith and J. Shuttleworth. Living Language. Hodder Education. 1999
  3. G. Ives, M. Giovanelli, J. Keen, R. Rana and R. Rudman. A/AS Level English Language for AQA Student Book. Cambridge University Press. 2015.
  4. M. Nelson. Corpus-based Study of the Lexis of Business English and Business English Teaching Materials. University of Manchester. 2000
  5. M. Halliday. Edited by: J. Webster. Language and Society Volume 10. Bloomsbury Publishing. 2009.

Frequently Asked Questions about Language and Identity

A person's identity can be influenced by different social factors, such as age, gender, class, ethnicity, and occupation. These social factors and can then influence an individual's language use. An individual can choose to express parts of their identity with language or also conceal parts of their identity with language. 

A person's identity is determined by certain social factors such as gender, age and region. These factors can contribute to and affect language use.

Language can be considered the carrier of culture and a way of showing belonging to particular social groups. We can change and adapt our language use to show others aspects of identities and how we identify ourselves.

Language is the way people can express aspects of their identity. For example using specific features to a social group shows your belonging to that group.

Aspects of a person's identity can be shown through their language use. People may choose to use certain features on purpose to either share a part of their identity or to keep it secret. We study the relationship between language and identity in the field of sociolinguistics. 

Final Language and Identity Quiz

Question

What is accent?

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Answer

Accent is the way sounds are produced where there can be variation. A person's accent is usually determined by their region but other social factors can affect it too.

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Question

What is dialect?

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Answer

Dialect refers to the variation in words that can occur in different people's speech depending on region or social group.

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Question

What is accent or dialect levelling?

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Answer

Levelling occurs when features from one accent or dialect spread and are adopted into other accents and dialects, causing standardised forms.

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Question

What is overt prestige?

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Answer

Someone exhibits overt prestige when they take pride in using standard and prestigious forms of language.

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Question

What is covert prestige?

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Answer

Covert prestige is when someone takes pride in using non-standard forms of language.

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Question

What is convergence?

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Answer

A speaker converges when they adapt their language to be more similar to that of the person they're speaking to.

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Question

What is divergence?

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Answer

Divergence is when someone adapts their language to be more different to who they're speaking to, usually through emphasising their accent or dialect features.

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Question

Who theorised convergence and divergence in relation to linguistic study?

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Answer

Howard Giles

Show question

Question

What did Labov's Martha's Vineyard study look at?

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Answer

Accent change in the residents of Martha's Vineyard.

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Question

What occupation was the accent change on Martha's Vineyard most common in?

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Answer

Fishing

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Question

What age group initiated accent change on Martha's Vineyard?

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Answer

30 - 50

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Question

What feature of spoken language did Labov investigate for accent change?

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Answer

The diphthong vowels /ai/ and /au/.

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Question

Why did year-round Martha's Vineyard residents change their accents?

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Answer

To subconsciously diverge from the accent of the incoming summer residents and tourists.

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Question

What environmental factors can affect a person's identity and their language use?

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Answer

Their parents, peers and region.

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What social factors can affect a person's identity?

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Answer

  • Region
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • Class 
  • Ethnicity

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Question

What is an idiolect?

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Answer

An idiolect is the way a particular person speaks. This can include language features from a range of social groups which apply to the speaker.

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How does identity affect language use?

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Answer

A person may use specific language features to show different aspects of their identity.

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Question

How does Carmen Llamas study of accent in Middlesbrough relate to language and identity?

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Answer

Middlesbrough changed from being part of Yorkshire to being part of the North East. Older generations still identified as being Yorkshire while younger speakers identified as being from the North East. Younger speakers changed their language to include North East features while older speakers did not.

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Question

According to Keith and Shuttleworth's language and gender study, what language features could someone use if they wanted to show the masculine side of their identity?

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Answer

They could do any of the following:

  • Swear more
  • Avoid emotions
  • Insult each other
  • Be competitive in conversation
  • Dominate conversation
  • Speak with authority
  • Give more commands
  • Interrupt more
  • Have demeaning names for women
  • Talk about women and machines in the same way
  • Talk about sports

Show question

Question

What did Gary Ives research?

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Answer

Adolescent language in high schools.

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Question

According to Ives' findings of adolescent language, how would a teenager show their involvement in the group identity of teenagers?

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Answer

They could do any of the following:

  • Use an informal register.
  • Talk about relationships.
  • Use taboo language.
  • Use dialect.
  • Use slang.

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How could someone show the professional side of their identity?

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Answer

They could use business lexis terms and topics such as money, time, technology and companies.

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Question

How could someone show their identity while at work?

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Answer

They could go against Nelson's theory of business lexis and instead talk about personal topics such as family, holidays and hobbies.

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Question

How does Goffman's face theory relate to language and identity?

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Answer

We show our identity through the way we talk. Goffman states that we present a face to society through our language. These two statements together imply that the face we present is our public identity we want other people to see.

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Question

What is anti-language?

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Answer

Anti-language is the language used by a group of people who are deemed an anti-society.

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Why do anti-societies come about?

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Answer

Anti-societies come about when people want an alternative to the 'normal' society and seek a covert identity.

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What is an example of an anti-language?

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Answer

Polari

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Question

Why was Polari created?

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Answer

Polari came about as an anti-language for gay men to use, allowing them to communicate freely when being gay was either illegal or frowned upon.

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What sociolinguistic factor can apply to any social group?

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Answer

Identity

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How can a sense of identity influence language change?

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Answer

If people feel as though they belong, they are more likely to mimic or adopt different language features and varieties. 

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In what year was Labov's Martha's Vineyard study?

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Answer

1963

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Question

What is a sociolect?

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Answer

A sociolect is  a type of dialect influenced by different social factors, such as age, class, occupation, ethnicity, and gender.

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True or false: an idiolect relates to a group of people (two or more).

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Answer

False, an idiolect is specific to the individual.

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Question

Which three social factors was Labov particularly interested in during his Martha's Vineyard study?

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Answer

  • age
  • occupation
  • ethnicity

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Question

What three types of speech did Labov want to elicit during the interviews?

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Answer

  • casual 
  • emotional
  • careful

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Question

What is the 'observer's paradox'?

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Answer

The observer's paradox is when someone knows they are being observed, and this very knowledge causes them to behave in ways that are not completely natural for them. 

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In Labov's final data set, which three ethnic groups did he split people into?

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Answer

  • English
  • Indian
  • Portuguese

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Question

Which four factors seemed to influence the centralisation of the diphthongs in Labov's study?

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Answer

  • Living in rural areas
  • Participating in traditional occupations
  • Being ages in the 30s or 40s
  • Being fond of Martha's Vineyard

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Question

Why is language change less common in older adults?

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Answer

Older people are generally more set in their ways and have habits that are much harder to change. Their sense of identity is well-established. 

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Question

What is a diphthong?

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Answer

A diphthong is a vowel sound comprised of two individual vowels in one syllable.

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During childhood, children mimic the language they hear from...?

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Answer

Their parents/ carers

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What is sociolinguistics?

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Answer

Sociolinguistics is the study of how social factors such as age and gender can affect language use.

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Question

What is a sociolect?

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Answer

A sociolect refers to language use that is specific to people belonging to the same social group and share the same social factors, such as class, age, or occupation.  

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Question

What does RP stand for?

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Answer

Received Pronunciation

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Who is the most famous example of someone who speaks using RP?

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Answer

The Queen of England

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Question

What did Carmen LLamas study in 2000?

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Answer

Linguistic variation in Middlesbrough.

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Question

According to Keith and Shuttleworth, which gender tends to be more competitive in conversation?

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Answer

Men

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Question

According to Gary Ives' West Yorkshire study, which age group used a lot of slang and taboo terms?

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Answer

Adolescents

Show question

Question

List three topics that were not discussed by participants in Michael Nelson's 2000 study of business lexis.

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Answer

Any from this list:


  • weekends

  • personal issues

  • family

  • society

  • house and home

  • hobbies

Show question

Question

What is a 'covert identity'?

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Answer

A covert identity is an identity that someone wishes to conceal or keep secret.

Show question

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